Sir David Attenborough: Large families are a plague on the Earth

Published on September 24th, 2013 | by Rob Slane 

Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist and television broadcaster, has come out and had another blast at that scourge of modern life, “the large family”. Sir David, who earlier this year described humans as “a plague on the Earth,”[1] depicted those who have large families as irresponsible, saying: 

“If you were able to persuade people that it is irresponsible to have large families in this day and age, and if material wealth and material conditions are such that people value their materialistic life and don’t suffer as a consequence, then that’s all to the good.  But I’m not particularly optimistic about the future. I think we’re lucky to be living when we are, because things are going to get worse.”[2]

He also went on to express support for the principle of China’s one-child policy, although criticising the way it has been carried out: 

“It’s the degree to which it has been enforced which is terrible, and there’s no question it’s produced all kinds of personal tragedies. There’s no question about that. On the other hand, the Chinese themselves recognise that had they not done so there would be several million more mouths in the world today than there are now.”[3] 

Sir David is not the only major public figure speaking out and campaigning against the “scourge of high population”. Bill and Melinda Gates have repeatedly claimed that there are too many people in the world, advocating the reduction of the human population through the use of vaccines and working alongside abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes International.[4] 

But is there any truth in what they are saying? Is high population really such a plague on the Earth and the cause of famine and poverty? Although we have been led to believe this is the case, the truth is quite different.

The idea of population control has been around at least as far back as the late 16th century. The Italian, Giovanni Botero, warned of the dangers of population growth, claiming that populations tend to increase without limit, while the means of subsistence grows only slowly.[5] In the 18th century, a Scottish Presbyterian minister named Dr. Robert Wallace set forth his vision of utopia, which included a world government that compelled equality, eradicated private property, and gave the role of the raising of children to the state. However, the major problem he envisaged in his apparently otherwise perfect utopia, was population growth. Since the conditions in his utopia would be so perfect, he worried that this would lead to population growth, which itself would come to undermine the utopia:

“Under a perfect government, the inconveniences of having a family would be so entirely removed, children would be so well taken care of, and everything become so favourable to populousness, that … mankind would increase so prodigiously, that the earth would at last be overstocked, and become unable to support its numerous inhabitants.… There would not even be sufficient room for containing their bodies upon the surface of the earth.”[6] 

However, neither Botero’s or Wallace’s ideas gained much of a following, and it wasn’t until the Reverend (they always come from the church don’t they!) Thomas Robert Malthus that the idea of population growth presenting a huge danger really took root. In his Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, he argued, as had Botero and Wallace before him, that population growth was a great danger to humanity: 

“The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population… increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress.”[7] 

His argument was really very simple. Production cannot keep up with population growth and so population growth will always bring about poverty. He even went as far as to produce a mathematical formula to show this, stating that population “tends to go on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio, while the means of subsistence increase in an arithmetical ratio.”[8] 

However, there were two big errors in this mathematical assertion. The first was the idea that human population doubled every twenty-five years. This is historically untrue and demonstrably false. As a result of the impact of Malthus’s ideas and the panic it began to create, the government of his day introduced a population census. When the first of these was taken in 1801, the population of England stood at 7,754,875.[9]At the last census in 2011, the population of England had reached 53,012,456.[10] Had Malthus’s assumption of a doubling of the population every twenty five years been correct, the population of England in 2001 would have stood at 1,985,248,000. Clearly his assumption was way off, and even if we take into account the fact that the birth control pill has led to a far lower birth rate from the 1950s onwards, his predictions were still clearly wrong by miles. 

The second error was the idea that whilst population grew exponentially, production of food increased linearly. In fact, he gently mocked the idea that production could ever increase very much beyond what it was in his day: 

“We may be quite sure that among plants, as well as among animals, there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is. It is probable that the gardeners who contend for flower prizes have often applied stronger dressing without success. At the same time, it would be highly presumptuous in any man to say, that he had seen the finest carnation or anemone that could ever be made to grow. He might however assert without the smallest chance of being contradicted by a future fact, that no carnation or anemone could ever by cultivation be increased to the size of a large cabbage; and yet there are assignable quantities much greater than a cabbage. No man can say that he has seen the largest ear of wheat, or the largest oak that could ever grow; but he might easily, and with perfect certainty, name a point of magnitude, at which they would not arrive. In all these cases therefore, a careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined.”[11] 

Yet once again he was wrong. The England he lived in had a population of less than 8 million. The England I live in has a population of over 50 million. According to his views of production, the England of today simply would not be able to sustain itself and millions would be living in poverty and starvation. Yet is this actually the case? Not even remotely. The vast majority of the more than 50 million population have abundance of food, and instances of malnourishment are practically non-existent, unlike in Malthus’s day. 

The idea that large population growth is the cause of famine and poverty is simply untrue. The thinking behind the assertions of people like Sir David Attenborough and Bill and Melinda Gates is that “fewer people = more resources”. Yet if this were the case, were we to look at a chart showing high population density and a chart showing poverty, we would expect to see a direct correlation. But this simply isn’t what we find. 

When we look at a list of the most densely populated countries or territories in the world, we find places such as Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Bahrain and Malta![12] Hardly enclaves of poverty and desperation! 

What is also interesting is that if we accepted the Malthusian / Attenborough / Bill & Melinda Gates theories, wouldn’t we expect to find that Africa, the poorest continent, is by far the most densely populated? Yet what we actually find is that Europe is way, way more densely populated than Africa. The United Kingdom, for instance, has a population density of 679 people per square mile whilst Germany has a density of 583 people per square mile.[13] Compare this with those desperately poor countries, Ethiopia and Chad, which have 81 and 23 people per square mile respectively.[14] 

In addition to this, China, singled out by Sir David Attenborough as a country that would not have been able to feed all those extra mouths had it not adopted the one-child policy, is only number 83 on the list of population density with 365 people per square mile.[15] Compare this with the former British colony of Hong Kong, which has a population density of 16,876 people per square mile and yet is one of the richest places on the planet, and hopefully you get the picture.[16] 

It is quite simply a fallacy to equate large populations with famine and poverty and an even bigger error to propose population control as the means of dealing with the situation. As the economist Murray Rothbard pointed out, “A rising population is generally a sign of, and goes along with, prosperity and economic development. Hong Kong, for example, has one of the densest populations in the world, and yet its standard of living is far higher than the rest of Asia, including, for example, the thinly populated Sinkiang province of China.”[17] 

The real problem with countries that cannot seem to feed themselves, is nothing whatever to do with population; rather it is to do with human folly, unchecked evil and government arrogance. Again, turning to Rothbard: 

“The world, even the Third World, does not suffer from too many people, or from excessive population growth. (Indeed, the rate of world population growth, although not yet its absolute numbers, is already declining.) The Third World suffers from a lack of economic development due to its lack of rights of private property, its government-imposed production controls, and its acceptance of government foreign aid that squeezes out private investment. The result is too little productive savings, investment, entrepreneurship, and market opportunity. What they desperately need is not more UN controls, whether of population or of anything else, but for international and domestic government to let them alone. Population will adjust on its own.”[18] 

This problem is basically this: The state puts itself into the role of God. The Stategod then insists on some form of central economic planning, either in the form of pure socialism or in the form of a highly regulated, highly taxed economy. The more central planning by the Stategod, the more the incentive to innovate and produce is taken from people who then come to rely on the Stategod. However, the Stategod turns out to be utterly unable to provide for the needs of the nation and the country inevitably falls into poverty and even famine. The population control advocates then come along and blame the dearth not on the failure of the centralised planning to provide for the people, but on the “fact” that there are apparently too many people and so advocate things such as sterilisation and increased access to abortion. 

The problem is not that the Earth cannot sustain many more people, but rather how we take dominion and use the land. The Earth is vaster and more fruitful than people in the past could have conceived, and so probably vaster and more fruitful than any of us now can conceive. But its resources will not and cannot be tapped under the rule of the Stategod. 

The fact is, Sir David Attenborough, along with Bill & Melinda, have no more idea what the maximum population of the Earth is than I do or Malthus did 200 years ago. Only God knows that. Nor do they know how much more abundance the Earth can bring forth than it presently does. Again only God knows that. What we do know is that where the gospel has prospered and where people have by and large been allowed to innovate and produce, blessing has followed, populations have grown and the people have been fed. And where the state has attempted to fill the role of God, centrally planning, disincentivising work and innovation, poverty and famine inevitably follow. 

So no, Sir David, I do not feel in the slightest bit irresponsible for having a large family, and I have no desire to put materialism before raising children. When I feed my children, I am taking nothing from the mouths of a child in Africa. In fact, I am confident that were it not for the ungodly governments in those countries – attempting to be God and failing miserably – the true God would “give them their food in due season” and “open His hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:15-16). It is the Stategod that you need to be directing your ire toward; not those who love children and are optimistic about the future.



  3. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  18. Ibid